Michigan summers are the long-awaited reward at the end of a harsh winter and cool spring. We trade in our heavy layers and early nights for sunshine-soaked strolls that linger long into the evening. With plenty of tie-dye skies, mild temperatures, and lush vegetation, Michigan summers are truly exceptional – and Leelanau offers all the very best of it.
Our natural areas saw record high visits throughout the pandemic. As the clouds clear and temperatures rise, we hope to see folks enjoying these areas just as much this summer. Expect to see plenty of beautiful water and skyline views, lovely forests, and, if you’re lucky – some wildlife while exploring. Consider adding one (or all!) of these natural areas to your summer list to get started.
Encapsulated between Lake Michigan and Lake Leelanau, Clay Cliffs is a vision in blue and forest greens. This natural area is a favorite owned by Leland Township and maintained by the Conservancy. Protected along with the 104.5 acres of land is 1,700 feet of shoreline on Lake Michigan and North Lake Leelanau. Hiking the loop is easy and includes a few mild inclines. Plenty of varied and lovely views are packed into this short hike, making it an excellent option for taking kids and summer guests.
This rare and delicate ecosystem is home to nesting Bald Eagles, native wildflowers, and shorebirds. Many locals consider Clay Cliffs to be the best place in Leelanau for wildflower viewing.
Take a break mid-way through your journey to stop and behold Lake Michigan. The 200-foot tall viewing platform provides a stunning view of the lake and the Manitou Islands that never disappoint. Continue on the trail and feel magically disoriented when the trees disappear all at once into a large open meadow. A few steps in, you’ll be greeted by a panoramic view of north Lake Leelanau. From there, the loop completes itself on a grass carpeted path back to the trailhead. Afterward, grab lunch to enjoy at the Village Green and take in Leland’s liveliest season.
The only other one of our natural areas where you can enjoy a view of the Manitou Islands is just a few miles south of Clay Cliffs. They may share a picture of Lake Michigan, but Whaleback is a special place all its own. This 40-acre natural area in Leland contains a short but challenging one-mile loop. The first half of the journey is an invigorating, steady incline. It’s effort well spent upon arriving at the stunning vista that showcases the Manitou Passage. The water and skyline view continue to accompany you on the second half of the trail to Birch Valley, where hundreds of birch trees lie peacefully in a quiet and serene resting place.
This natural area’s bluff hovers 300 feet above Lake Michigan and is named after its distinct shape. Another feature unique to Whaleback is the thimbleberry. Though they’re easy to find around Lake Superior, finding them in Leelanau is rare. Thimbleberries are described as being tiny, creamy, and sweet red cups similar to raspberries. The berries are only here for a flash, from June to August. Keep an eye out for these hidden and delightful treats.
Leland is a short distance away from Whaleback. After completing your hike, head into town and cool off by going for a shoreline walk along Van’s beach.
Farmland and forest combine for a varied and unique experience at DeYoung. Located in Traverse City, this 191-acre natural area is usually the first one that introduces folks from the Grand Traverse area to the Conservancy. Like a forest from woodland fairytales or folklore, the first half of DeYoung is an otherworldly escape. Before anything else, take the boardwalk to the serene view of Cedar Lake. Walking back, enter the Cedar Forest Trail to begin your journey. Cool, shaded air, paired with knobby and twisted cedars, provides a mystical, half-mile trail. This walk can be made longer by adding on the intersecting Leelanau Trail.
The second half of the trail can be accessed through a trailhead just a couple of minutes away on Strang Road. This upland, 1.5-mile trail is beautiful at any time of the day but can be especially lovely when the farmland’s dewy greens are illuminated by the rising or setting sun. This trail is also where you can see the historic DeYoung farmstead, including the recently restored farmhouse. You’ll find few inclines, and throughout most of it, you can hear the soothing sounds of a creek.
Afterward, use the Leelanau Trail to make your way as far as Suttons Bay and enjoy a coffee or glass of wine somewhere overlooking Grand Traverse Bay.
Palmer Woods Forest Reserve
The largest of the natural areas, Palmer Woods, is a multifaceted experience. The expansive 1075 acre wood in Maple City is home to 10 miles of multiple walking trails and a growing 5.75-mile mountain bike trail that accommodates all skill levels. Palmer Woods has the versatility to be an all-day activity or just a quick and easy hike. Choose your adventure with the walking trail. Several different loop options provide a walk for every energy level, with the option to hike 2 to 4 miles in the Price Valley Trail, 1 mile with the Loop Trail, and two additional leisurely trails.
Two mountain bike trails – the East Ridge Loop and the Central Ridge Loop are best suited for intermediate riders. These trails provide heart-pumping climbs, exhilarating descents, berms, and drops that will make for hours of satisfying ride time. However, work is well underway for an additional, easygoing mountain bike trail that will suit all riders, including beginners.
A destination to seek out while exploring Palmer Woods is the Fern Garden. Dr. Palmer is a fern expert. When a windstorm wiped out a mass of trees protecting an array of different ferns, he asked if he could transplant them within the Woods. He worked quickly and methodically, making trips between his property and what is now the Fern Garden. It’s a little legacy within his larger legacy and is a must-see for hikers and bikers.
Glen Arbor is just 10 minutes away and well worth going to if you’re looking for a complete day trip. Explore all of the beach, shops, bookstores, art galleries, and restaurants. End the day by watching the sunset from Good Harbor Bay Beach.
Cedar River Preserve
Enjoy a paddle down the Cedar River Preserve. This 548-acre wetland complex is crucial to protecting the health of Lake Leelanau. Located inside Solon Swamp, this natural area is home to lots of wildlife and rare wetland plant life. The river begins in Cedar and will take you to Lake Leelanau.
Kayak or canoe this slow-flowing river for a tranquil afternoon outdoors. Mesmerizing wetland plants are at every turn, including water lilies that look painted underneath the glassy water. Without diverting from the path, the river takes around three hours to complete. Cedar River Preserve is a great place to observe wildlife up close. In this warmer season, you can see turtles sunning themselves on protruding stumps and rocks. You may catch a glimpse of the rare Saturniid moths and their large, vividly colored wings. Or even a mother duck guiding her ducklings into the water. Here, the quiet are rewarded.
Extend your trip by traveling down one of the splits in the path. Make sure you have a map, bug spray, sunscreen, wide-brimmed hat, water, and snacks for your trip. There isn’t a stop to get out through the preserve, so remember to plan accordingly.
With long days melting into short nights, it’s the perfect time to get the most out of this picturesque paradise. Enjoy all of the coming beach days, breezy drives, long talks with walks. Touch the grass. Feel the water. Begin your Leelanau Adventure.